A Steven Smith lesson on playing spin
"But can he do it on a cold, wet Tuesday night in Stoke?"
The beauty of this line lies in the many forms it took. The exact words of the question football pundit Andy Gray asked of Barcelona's Lionel Messi are near impossible to trace - because of the countless caricatures it spawned - but on the surface it seemed to be a put-down of all football outside the English Premier League. Scratch the surface, and you might see a semblance of reason to it. That conditions - symbolised by chilly, rainy Stoke - are after all important, especially when playing against a team that plays exceptionally well at home.
Because this statement involved Messi - arguably the greatest of all time - the fans thought of Gray more as a pirate than pundit: one-eyed. Thus began its mockery, using the quote in any context to mock-question anything. The IPL auction, for example, pays out the most ridiculous amounts of money, but can it pay its hotel bill on a cold day in Stoke?
Cricket has its own versions because conditions are way more significant in this sport than football. If you were to mock it, you could bring up IPL and a searing hot May night in Anytown, India. On more serious notes, May in Durham is often brought up when someone is scoring runs elsewhere. The WACA Ground pitch of the old was a test you had to ace before being rated. Of late, though, the geography is changing. For two years now, it has been time to ask of anyone scoring tons of Test runs, "But can he do it on a warm day against R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in India?"
Coming into the Pune Test, India, the No. 1 side in the world, had last lost a Test at home in December 2012, a full 20 matches ago. Their recent unbeaten streak at home and away stretched to 19 Tests. They had the two top bowlers in the ICC rankings, one of whom is the fastest to 250 wickets and is a good bet to keep that record at 300 too. New Zealand, England and Bangladesh had been dominated already. Australia were given no chance despite boasting a batsman who averaged more than 60. The only question everybody asked after Steven Smith's recent centuries was, "But can he do it on a turning track in India?"
As a batting unit, Australia came with a reputation of being excellent dominators on flat tracks but prone to collapses on ones that called for application. Those collapses had become this all-consuming, almighty force that swept everything in their wake. They collapsed even from positions of strength, losing in Kandy and Perth to name two, so some memories would have come back when they lost two wickets in seven overs in the second innings.
They needed someone to make sure they didn't give India a window by getting bowled out for 150. "But could Smith do it on a Bunsen against Ashwin and Jadeja?"
What followed was a workshop in batting on extreme pitches in particular and spin in general. The plans were in place before he walked out to bat. A little background is in order. Smith is an obsessive yet flexible batsman. The obsession shows in how after he was given out lbw to South Africa left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj when halfway down the wicket, he stepped out only once in the 100 balls of spin he faced in that home series. He swept only once; the sweep is not his favourite shot.
"I did advance once at the start of the summer and got out lbw," Smith said on arrival in Mumbai. "So I decided to stay back in my crease a little bit. You can do that in Australia with the wickets, they're pretty consistent with their turn and bounce. I have different game plans where I play, and how I play spin. That's going to change from playing at the WACA to the first Test in Pune. I'm pretty clear with the way I play."
Here Smith knew he would have to sweep, he knew he would have to come down the track to score runs. He knew he couldn't afford to play a forward-defensive. Spinners say you have got to bowl fuller on these pitches because you want the batsmen to defend off the front foot. You don't want to let them go back because then the ball turns past the edge.
Smith went back at the slightest opportunity he got. Jadeja kept turning the ball past his outside edge, creating excitement in the field, but Smith was nonplussed. He often smiled, almost mocking Jadeja's inability to either pitch it up or control the amount of turn.
Smith also kept playing the line of the ball to guard against the ball that doesn't turn. A day before this Test, he admitted it was near impossible to pick the ball that comes out as an offbreak but doesn't turn after pitching. He also said against such bowling you have to eliminate one half of the bat. He practised what he preached. He batted in a way where he was not going to be beaten on the inside edge. If you get the outside edge, hard luck, but do not at any cost let the straighter ball sneak past the inside edge to get you lbw. When the ball turned, he didn't follow it with his hands.
Smith hardly lunged forward in defence, unlike the India batsmen who tried to meet the ball on the half-volley only in defence, leaving themselves open to edges because of the extreme nature of the pitch. This was great percentage batting. He knew with the ball turning so much he could hardly be given out lbw, which gave him the confidence of staying back when he defended. He left the crease or moved forward only when he intended to get runs.
Outside loose balls, a significant proportion of Smith's runs came through sweeps and advances down the wicket. In the second innings he played 14 orthodox and three reverse sweeps for 16 runs. He left the crease on a whopping 25 occasions for 21 runs even though he had lost his wicket in the first innings when charging at Ashwin. He knew this was a kind of pitch where while you have to trust your defence, you also have to do unto the bowlers before they do unto you.
There will be those who will point to Smith's luck with dropped catches, but even if he had been caught on 23, Smith had shown that his method worked on this pitch. He had shown it did in the first innings, too. Returns of 27 and 23 would have been perfectly acceptable on this pitch, but Smith cashed in on the drop and went on to score more runs than India's first-innings score in the most challenging of conditions.
Just let the facts sink in: this is a second-innings hundred on a rank turner in India against the two best bowlers in the world. Kevin Pietersen scored a hundred in Mumbai in 2012-13 that should rival this, but it was on a better pitch than this. And that innings was all genius; this was about method, about application, about hard work. The runs were immaterial; Smith had shown everybody the way to bat on this pitch. And now he can score all the hundreds he wants outside India without being asked, "But can he do it on a warm day in India?"
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo